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How to Exploit Male Sexual Competitiveness to Raise Money

If a man donates a disproportionate amount of money to an attractive woman, other men will likely follow suit.
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(Photo: Tom Saga/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Tom Saga/Shutterstock)

A few months back, we reported on one way to get men to give more money to charity: Convince them that doing so is in their self-interest. Now, new research from Britain pinpoints still another method to get males to open their wallets.

It relies on activating a basic masculine impulse: The desire to impress an attractive woman, especially if others are competing for her approval.

Researchers call this phenomenon “competitive altruism,” a theory that predicts “people will compete to be the most generous, particularly in the presence of attractive potential partners.” This new paper found strong evidence of this tendency in men, but not in women.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, Nichola Raihani of University College London and Sarah Smith of the University of Bristol report that donors typically note what others have given and then cough up a similar sum.

Males give significantly more money "when they are donating to an attractive female fundraiser, and responding to a large donation made by another male donor."

But in their study, “we show that males do not conform to the majority when making donations,” they write, “but instead compete directly with other males when donating to attractive females.”

The study used 668 Web pages of people who were planning to participate in the London Marathon, and were looking for donors willing to give money to the cause they were running for. The pages all had photos of the runners; a group of raters judged the attractiveness of each.

The researchers scanned the pledges on each page until they found one that was unusually large—at least twice the average of those on the previous page, and more than 50 pounds (about $74).

They then examined up to 15 pledges that were made subsequently, focusing on those made by members of the same sex as the big donor they originally spotted.

The researchers found that males give significantly more money “when they are donating to an attractive female fundraiser, and responding to a large donation made by another male donor.”

Indeed, their level of giving is “around four times greater than when males give to less-attractive female (or male) fundraisers, or when they respond to a large donation made by a female donor.”

This instinct to compete was limited to men. “When we ran a similar model for female donors, asking whether females would show a greater response when giving to an attractive male fundraiser and when the large donation was made by another female,” the researchers write, “we found that female donors did not show greater responses in the competitive helping case.”

Raihani and Smith suspect this response by males is likely unconscious. From an evolutionary perspective, it helps explain the rationale for generosity to strangers: At least in certain instances, it’s an altruistic gesture that also serves a personal interest, acting as a “signal of partner quality."

The study contains interesting implications for fundraisers, who will have to decide for themselves if they can take advantage of this dynamic. (For a theater or dance company, the possibilities are intriguing. For disease research, not so much.)

In a statement issued by University College London, Smith offered this advice to those raising money for the London Marathon, which presumably also applies to other, similar appeals: “Get your generous friends to donate early, and make sure you put a good picture up—preferably one in which you are smiling.”

Even better, make it a seductive smile.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.